Selected projects & collaborations
These projects, installations, artwork series and collaborations are about stories both real and imagined. I am attracted to themes of degradation, transmutation and the passing of time. I am also fascinated by the trials and joys of our existential journey through this mad, bad and beautiful universe.
"It's not such a bad thing, a picture which tells a story." Pablo Picasso, in conversation with Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.
The Endless Scream
Alan O'Cain: words and actions / David Jackson: saxophones, flutes and machines
I continue to work with world-renowned saxophonist David Jackson (ex-Van der Graaf Generator) on "The Endless Scream", a roller coaster performance piece exploring the life and art of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. A sell-out world premiere was given at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford on 18 January 2020: David used his unparalleled knowledge of soundbeam technolgies to create looped soundscapes as a backdrop to improvised saxophone/flute and spoken word/original poetry. We were joined in Oxford by Richard Leigh Harris (keyboard), George Haslam (reeds) and Steve Kershaw (double bass). "The Endless Scream" is set to visit new venues in ever-evolving formats in the coming years/months. More information and audio-slideshow
Death and the Artist
Neulengbach, Austria, 31 October - 1 November 2018
On the exact day of the 100th anniversary of Austrian artist Egon Schiele's death (Schiele died from Spanish Flu, aged 28, on 31 October 1918) I painted a special self-portrait referencing a cast of Schiele's death mask whilst working in public on a replica of Schiele's easel within the candlelit and incense-scented preserved prison cell where Schiele was incarcerated in 1912.
The emergence of the painting was recorded in a film and the work presented to the town of Neulengbach with a dance/mime/poetry performance event on 1 November (my Birthday). Neulengbach went on to win the prestigious "kulturfreundlichste Gemeinde” prize (the most culture friendly community in Niederösterreich 2018) as the result of the project.
Special thanks to Luise and Günter Wagensommerer and granddaughter Nina, Lilly Heiss, Ferdinand Klimka, Hannes Etzlstorfer, Monika Dietl and the townspeople of Neulengbach for their hospitality and help in making this project possible. Thanks also to Vanessa Pilgerstorfer and Rainer Struck for translation of the performance poem. This was a happy and emotional return to the cell in Neulengbach following my previous project in 2012 (see in listings below).
Sentence - a work in progress
Started 2009, recently exhibited 25 January - 25 March 2019
This long-term project involves the creation of a portrait series inspired by an ongoing letter exchange with a US-based, British-born banker and art collector convicted of securities fraud in 2008, and now serving a sixteen-year sentence in a US jail. Each four-foot square work is based on a single photograph of this man and his wife taken whilst under house arrest pending trial. My subject, a university graduate, dedicated family man and former high-flyer of the corporate banking world is now in his seventies and has no chance for parole before 2022. I will continue adding one new work to the series until his release. The first eight works, together with extracts from letters, were featured in a solo exhibition in Manchester Cathedral from 7 March - 15 May 2017 and transferred to St. Joseph's Chapel, Ushaw College, Durham for display from 22 June - 29 November 2017. For Ushaw, a cello and spoken word soundtrack specially created by composer/performer Mark Carroll was added. That soundtrack "Sentence" now features on"Perhaps this is the Secret to Endurance", Mark's debut album: listen and download here. The series of paintings with soundtrack subsequently went on exhibition at the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, Cumbria (until 25 March 2019).
"These paintings pierce you. I was brought to tears. My prayers are with this man" - visitor to the Manchester exhibition from Dubai
"A sombre, insightful and thought-provoking series - thank you for sharing these important messages with the world" - visitor to the Manchester exhibition from Hong Kong
"A heart- and gut-wrenching sight. I came upon the words, forms and colours by surprise and did not expect to find such wanting here" - visitor to the Manchester exhibition from Ireland
"These paintings really show the deadness of humanity. Very scary" - visitor to Ushaw
"Profound, moving, stunningly effective and evocative" - visitor to Ushaw
"Powerful, compelling, mesmerising, thought-provoking, disturbing, excellent" - visitor to Kendal from North Yorkshire
"Interesting, shocking and fascinating" - local visitor to the Kendal exhibition
To see images of the works: Visit the dedicated Sentence project page.
RSC Collaboration - Full Fathom Five
Recently on display 2018-2019 (created 2006-2007)
Full Fathom Five was an official collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006-2007 Arctic-set production of The Tempest, starring Sir Patrick Stewart as Prospero and directed by Rupert Goold. I created fourteen paintings for the project, based exclusively on sketches made during rehearsals and performances. The complex, intricately-framed, mixed media works were exhibited at Capital Culture Gallery, Covent Garden in 2007 and later for several months (2007-2008) at Hendon Hall, former home of Shakespearean actor David Garrick. The works have appeared in a number of other exhibitions since, most recently in the East Abulacram at Ushaw, County Durham, UK.
15-29 November 2017
A bare, blackened birch tree appears to be growing from a mound of coal. The tree is decorated by miners' style helmets bearing coloured lights: all in the unlikely setting of the Radisson Blu Hotel foyer in Durham. This installation was created in collaboration with Head Gardener Mike Hughes and staff from Durham University Botanic Garden. The work celebrates Durham city's fifth major international Lumiere Festival. The Festival is the largest of its kind in Britain. Modern Durham was founded on the local coal mining industry, now gone.
With special thanks to the Radisson Blu Hotel, Beamish Museum (for loan of the coal) and Durham University Department of Earth Sciences (for loan of the hard hats).
In Other Words
23 January - 8 March 2017 (extended to 1 April)
Thirty Durham University international postgraduate students spent an afternoon writing haiku poems with me for an art and sound installation exhibited for ten weeks at the Durham World Heritage Site Visitor Centre. The installation, created by the same team as The Bikini Line (see below), celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Durham's UNESCO World Heritage status and featured found-object sculpture, pot plants, astroturf, a nanobloc miniature grand piano, displayed text and a soundscape consisting of the recorded poems (recited in their original languages by the students and again in English by randomly-selected members of the Durham public) set to an original piano score composed by Neil Crimes. Listen to the entire soundtrack at the project website. The poems were also published in a limited edition handmade book. In Other Words project website.
In an historic courtyard garden, a tiny piano, played by a tiny model pot plant, rests precariously on the end of a long plank, counterweighted by a heavy stone. Poems, like leaves, droop on the trellis. Real plants are the concert audience, lodged in the surrounding chairs. The sound of words and music wafts on the air.
The Bikini Line - Durham Botanic Garden
The Bikini Line was created in collaboration the Arts Development Group at Josephine Butler College, students from St. Cuthbert's Society, Durham University, talented creative and sound specialist Neil Crimes and Mike Hughes, Head Gardener at Durham Botanic Garden and his staff. This exciting art installation, involving found objects, plants, sound and seventy hand-painted paper bikinis commemorated the 70th Anniversary of the first nuclear bomb test at Bikini Atoll and the naming of the iconic swimwear. The Botanic Garden is an exotic oasis in the heart of Durham city with plant specimens from around the world. Happily, Bikini Atoll is in a process of successful environmental regeneration and Bikinians scattered across the globe harbour thoughts of one day returning to their homeland. The installation ran from June 16th to July 25th 2016 and was extended to the end of August. My sincere thanks to all involved for helping to make this thrilling and thought-provoking project a resounding success. The Bikini Line website.
The Ariadne Frieze
Completed October 2013
As part of a one-year residency at Ustinov College, Durham University (2012-2013) I created a painted frieze comprising a triptych of works based on the classical story of Ariadne, referencing many mythical elements including the Minotaur, the labyrinth, Ariadne's abandonment on Naxos by Theseus and the fall of Icarus. The frieze also paid homage to the opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, and Edvard Munch's Frieze of Life.
Munch's frieze is largely set on the Norwegian coastline and my frieze mirrors that concept by making allusion to the Durham coastline at Seaham. My triptych is eight metres wide and painted on bespoke aluminium panels.
For images, video, poetry and more read The Ariadne Frieze Blog.
Egon Schiele's prison cell, Neulengbach, Austria
In April 1912, the renowned Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was placed in a prison cell charged with the kidnap and rape of an under age girl and the display of immoral art in a place accessible to children. The first two (highly-questionable) charges were dropped when the girl involved withdrew her statement, but the third led to a conviction. Having spent three weeks in the cell, Schiele was given three days extra to serve: a great relief, for if the more serious charges had been upheld, a sentence of twenty years' hard labour could have ensued.
In the cell (at Neulengbach in Austria) the anguished Schiele created thirteen infamous drawings, several adorned with defiant handwritten text. That immortalized cell, untouched by time, was rediscovered by art historian Alessandra Comini in 1963.
In 2012, the one-hundredth anniversary of the "Neulengbach Affair", an International Schiele Symposium was held at the site. As part of that symposium, I performed an "Aktion" in the cell (8.00pm, June 15th - 8.00am, June 16th). Locked in overnight, filmed live for the web, I created twenty-four text-adorned drawings referencing my own poetic interpretations of the songs of Schubert's Winterreise and my responses to the cell and the influence of Schiele on my work.
My drawing and poems (presented in English and German) were displayed in the Neulengbach Egon Schiele (Courthouse) Museum during May/June 2013 as part of the exhibition "Schiele Reloaded". (Special thanks to Günter Wagonsommerer, Alessandra Comini, Michael Gratz, Carl Aigner, translator Marie Speigner and the State Museum of Lower Austria who helped make this project possible.)
Completed 2009, Exhibited 2012
On 2 June 2009 I encountered the artist Sir Peter Blake on Cork Street and asked if I could take his photograph to use as the basis for a portrait. From that single image I created 108 small coloured pencil studies, each exploring a different way to capture a person through art. As I continued, the studies increased in bizarreness, referencing many of my favourtie artists from history along the way.
From 18 June to 6 July 2012, to celebrate the 80th Birthday of Sir Peter Blake, the complete series was exhibited at The Blake Gallery, Gravesend (named after the artist, who studied in the town). All 108 studies can be viewed on the Portraits page of this website.
I am grateful to Gravesham Council for supporting the exhibition of this project.
Opera of Blood
Completed 2009, Published online 2010
Elizabeth Bathory was born on 7th August 1560 in the Kingdom of Hungary. At the age of fifteen she married Count Ferenc Nadasdy. The couple developed a taste for sexual torture and murder. When Count Nadasdy was killed in battle in 1607 Elizabeth's activities escalated. By the time of her arrest in 1610 she had killed (according to some estimates) over 650 virgin girls. Fears that a trial would have political repercussions led to an informal sentence, and she was walled into her own castle rooms. Those servants who had aided her were brutally executed. In 1614, at the age of 54, she was found dead amidst plates of untouched food. After her death the legend of the Blood Countess quickly grew. A myth developed that she bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. She was soon a gothic horror icon and her hilltop fortress at Cachtice (alt: Csej), now in Slovakia, became a site of notoriety.
The extent and full details of Elizabeth Bathory's crimes remain contentious.
Opera of Blood began as a single poem 650 Virgins and grew, in a frenzy of writing akin to Elizabeth Bathory's thirst for blood, from this one donné into a book length series of interrelated verses exploring the hope for mankind's redemption in the cold, unfeeling, godless modern universe bequeathed by Nietzsche, the existentialists and most schools of twentieth century science, philosophy and art.
Using art historical references and science fiction elements, the sequence is both an extended poem and a commentary on the world we inhabit today. And its aim is to question, tell a story, inspire thought and entertain.
I published Opera of Blood online in 2010 (along with notes on the poems) and it can still be read as a vintage webpage: Opera of Blood.
White Rhino - limited edition of handmade poetry books
In 2008, working with my wife Juliet, I selected poems from the hundreds I had written since 1980 and together we bound-up a bespoke limited edition of forty handmade books using the finest materials and tradtional bookbinding techniques. The books have covers in red or blue Japanese silk with a small number also in a leopard-skin-look fabric. Inspired by the project, we have created many other small-run hand-bound publications and developed a series of courses for teaching bookmaking to the public. Visit the Talks and Workshops page on this website for more information. A very few copies of White Rhino are still available for sale. If interested please get in touch.
Residency - Edvard Munch's studio, Oslo
The individual who has most affected my own work is Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, creator of the famous painting The Scream. In February 2008 I was privileged to spend an entire month working in Munch's preserved studio at Ekely, Oslo. The brick-built studio was completed in 1929 and used by Munch until his death, aged 80, in 1944. During the month I created many exploratory works with a mission to commune with the spirit of Munch, particularly by delving into my own soul late into the dark winter nights. These works included drawing, painting, photography, video and poetry. I continue to use the works as a source of inspiration for new ideas and projects.
Words of Art - Hay Festival
Created 2003-2006, Exhibited 2006
Between 2003 and 2006 I created a series of twelve paintings based on quotes from famous writers. The choice of words resulted from images that hit me as I read literary biographies, poetry collections, magazine articles and other works. This set of paintings was exhibited in a solo show at the 2006 Hay Festival. I have moved on from the style of most of these works but present above the final painting from the series, inspired by the words of poet Robert Lowell (in a letter to his friend Elizabeth Bishop written on 12 July 1973). Lowell had recently published a trio of books culminating in The Dolphin, an intimate and controversial examination of the break-up of his marriage. The poems famously included extracts and paraphrases from his wife's letters and references to the character of their daughter.
"My sin (mistake?) was publishing," Lowell told Bishop. His book caused outrage, but later won the Pulitzer Prize. He was interested in, and inspired by art. He died in a New York cab in 1977 aged 60 clutching an original Lucien Freud painting.
The quote resonated with me because of it's call to let one's creativity fly. The painting contains a letter I have written to the future hidden in the framing behind the centre panel. I wanted the child to appear to be floating in outer space, the umbilical twisting like a vortex-wormhole. I used a frame-within-a-frame to emphasize the intimate and precious.